Transitioning back to work: A discussion in compassionate leadership

Sep 28, 2021 | IG Blog Posts

Exploring back to onsite work

David Boone of Staples Canada suggests that hybrid models with some continuations of remote work are prevalent among his networks. “We’ve discovered it seems to be rolling out on a function-specific basis with no one solution for all,” he said explaining that based on the needs of each function and the nature of the work being done, there is room for flexibility. “We know it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainty that this approach creates,” he added.

Since many employees have been working throughout the pandemic, members of the panel felt the term, return to onsite work – rather than return to work was more appropriate for the discussion. Jim Estill of Danby said return to site work applies mostly to the office staff as warehouse and other roles have been continuing throughout the pandemic with proper barriers and protocols in place. Core hours for office staff allow collaboration across departments. “The key is to set the expectation,” he said. “It’s not one’s right to work at home.” With flexibility and transparent communications, staff are aware that it will never go back exactly as it was before – such as well-filled conference centres.

Anne Toner Fung of Innovation Guelph described her workforce as knowledge workers who, while they can work effectively off site, are part of an innovation centre with responsibilities to various stakeholders. She suggested that the hybrid model fits with the culture of her small team where interactions are important to build rapport and empower decision making and career development. “We are returning to onsite work three days per week,” she said. “We will have an overlap of one day with some functions requiring more onsite work.” She explained that for a non-profit, finding the resources for barriers such as plexi glass, and cleaning protocols has been challenging, and she has committed to providing the team with time to adjust.

Skills to support the transition

Toner Fung said maintaining relationships in the hybrid model is important and it requires mental flexibility, emotional intelligence and conscious collaboration. “It’s important to acknowledge that anxiety exists,” she explained. “Change is constant, and we have to become adept with it.”

Estill said that as a leader, he has decided to deliberately be available to his staff during his two days in the office. He tries not to participate in external meetings during those days – emphasizing his presence and availability to continue building rapport.

Boone says, from a management perspective, he also encourages people to be deliberate and skilled in running effective hybrid meetings so those connecting remotely are just as engaged as those onsite.

Preparing the environment

Boone added that in preparing for the transition back to onsite work, Staples has balanced making the office environment safe by starting a voluntary return. Initial adopters help build confidence in others through experiencing it and noted that air purifiers have also become quite popular office purchases as more return.

Toner Fung said it’s a priority to inform staff about safety measures and ensure policies are clear. “Allowing the opportunity for staff to express concerns and being aware of existing anxiety helps with the transition. The concerns are the same no matter the size of the team,” she added.

Vaccinated vs unvaccinated staff

Knowing how to address vaccinated vs unvaccinated staff is one of the most challenging things for companies according to Boone. He described various scenarios he’s seen in workplaces that include some combination of mandatory requirements with some leading to job-loss and some involving testing and masking. “Coming in is optional but we [Staples] are encouraging our staff to become vaccinated. We’re trying to manage this in the right way,” he said.

Estill explained that Danby is following the laws and strongly encouraging vaccination while Toner Fung agreed and added that Innovation Guelph relies on public health recommendations.

At Danby, confidentiality of staff who contract COVID-19 is to be respected while contact tracing is followed. Estill added that they want staff to stay home when they are feeling unwell which is different from a historical expectation that people should tough it out. The other two panelists agreed that staying current with public health guidelines is important as they frequently change in response to the pandemic.

Creating a cohesive team within a hybrid model

Staples prioritizes Moments that Matter and encourage management to connect with people and define these moments for their functions and for the entire enterprise. To achieve Moments that Matter everyone must invest in them – it’s how you can stay deliberately connected with people, Boone said. “We recognize that two to three months from now things will be different so when we share information, we understand it can change, and we prepare for that.”

Estill said it has become more normal for him to make video calls rather than phone calls to establish that connection with staff. Staying connected requires deliberate actions. Boone added that it’s good to remember that since a percentage of communication is not verbal, in-person is important – with that in mind, Staples’ hybrid model expects 30 to 70 per cent in-person staffing.

Hiring talent and office fairness/equity

The CEOs agreed that the pandemic has provided opportunities to hire geographically diverse staff where appropriate. Interestingly, in the case of Staples where international branches of their business existed before the pandemic, they’ve discovered office locations are not always necessary. It has also provided opportunities to hire talent in certain markets where there have been talent availability challenges.

As a regional innovation centre, Toner Fung stated that the location of Innovation Guelph is part of its identity, which is one of the reasons for returning onsite. She suggested as a leader, being present to people, mindful, aware, consciously collaborative and relying on equitable employment models are key components.

Estill said employees who continue to work remotely must be careful to demonstrate their value and consciously engage since they are not as visible as onsite workers. The panel also agreed that the hybrid model does offer flexibility to employees who are working parents navigating the school systems.

Emerging themes

The theme that emerged from this discussion is that transitioning back to onsite work must be done thoughtfully and with compassion. Leaders must consciously and deliberately provide opportunities for collaboration and rapport-building while providing for the safety of employees – both mentally and physically, with flexibility. Staying current with public health recommendations and employee wellness best practices, while encouraging meaningful communications and opportunities to connect, will continue to be important in the coming months. This may require new skills or practicing and fine-tuning existing ones to invest in the successful transition.